With the front and back covers of Down Beat magazine paying respects to the current swing revival, and record stores everywhere reminding us that generations do have common interests, it’s no surprise that "Grape Escape" opens the album with walking bass, drums on two and four, and horns swinging together. Since Joseph Jarman left the Art Ensemble of Chicago over six years ago in an act of religious determination, they’ve not recorded until now. Founded in 1966 by Jarman, Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, and drummer Phillip Wilson, the unit lost Wilson, gained Famoudou Don Moye, and remained intact for 25 years. Comparing today’s ensemble, however, to the "in your face" intensity that’s rung through over 30 albums and numerous live appearances isn’t quite fair. Without Jarman the ensemble seems less intense and more inclined to pitch a lighter, more comical side of free jazz.
"Mama Wants You," the longest of the album’s pieces at over twelve minutes, allows room for a few solo stretches by Mitchell and Bowie. The saxophonist moans and wails in blues fashion to a swinging backdrop, but never heats up. Bowie quotes a few favorite classic bop tunes, wanders through a comical, whining trumpet routine, and plays the acrobat by switching back and forth rapidly from one microphone to the other. Similarly, on "Malachi" Mitchell switches instruments, alternates microphones, and extracts contrasting sounds from his saxophone to provide a welcome assortment. With the keyboard playing block chords on two & four, and the ensemble combining a simple folksy melody over odd percussion noises, the light mood of "Strawberry Mango" reminds us that this ensemble appreciates humor in music. Similarly, "Lotta Colada" presents a straightforward calypso theme wrapped in a core mainstream arrangement. Although the fires of intensity never do light up, the Art Ense! mble’s latest album swings and provides a pleasant session that is easily accessible to most readers.
Track Listing: Grape Escape; Odwalla Theme; Jamaica Farewell; Mama Wants You; Strawberry Mango; Villa Tiamo; Malachi; Lotta Colada.